Your Identity is Collapsing: why we feel lost in the digital age
Alright, let’s get upsetting: Identity Collapse.
This is a hard idea to explain in the abstract, so I will be concrete: my motivating experience is the rapid proliferation of gender/sexual identities in the wake of understanding that the gender/sexuality categories we have operated under are tautological.
That’s some gross words, so what does it mean? Think of it like this: “Zebra” is a category of animal. Knowing that an animal is a Zebra tells you certain “aggregate” data: if you look at traits which span the whole population of Zebra’s, you’ll find basically the attributes of a striped desert horse: so, body has that horse shape, has stripes, runs a lot, runs really fast, likes to hang out with other Zebras, eats grass.
But, if you hand me a particular Zebra, there are a lot of things I won’t know unless I check this particular Zebra. How much does this Zebra eat. Is this a fast Zebra or a slow Zebra? How high can this Zebra jump? What does it like to eat best? Animal handlers and trainers will tell you that each animal has a distinct personality, and if you have had more than one pet of the same species, you will have experienced this first hand.
But now think back: this striped desert horse about which you know very little particular information, how did you put it in the category of Zebra? Well, you looked at it and saw it was striped, and kind of horse looking, and it did Zebra stuff like run around and eat grass. But, this is precisely what it means to be a Zebra. We decided that striped desert horses are Zebras, but then when something is a Zebra, that doesn’t tell you anything except it’s a striped desert horse.
In a “logical” sense there is a lack of theorems which connect the “global” properties of Zebras to the “local” properties of one Zebra or some Zebra’s. That means, the only information an animal being in the category of Zebra tells you is that…this animal fits in the category of Zebra. This sort of logic is called ‘tautological’ which means ‘so obvious its fucking pointless.’ (Note: that does not mean the category is not real, just that it’s useless).
This is what people noticed about our gender/sex identities: there is no theorem which says “any woman is like X” or “men always do Y” or “gay men have sex # times a month” or “transgender people are sexual predators.” In fact, when we looked into it (fucking finally) even the sort of “average” differences you can find amongst these different gender/sex categories are so marginal as to be useless. (There are a few notable exceptions between men and women like physical strength and spatial reasoning, but even those differences are within 1 standard deviation, for those who are into that sort of thing).
So, once people notice this, the identity collapses. Saying, “I’m gay” is now understood to mean “I like to have sex with people with the same genitals as me,” and not anything else. This is a great development except…the identity has dissolved. And people really like identities. In fact, the way you identify yourself as parts of larger groups is so essential to a sense of self, that some psychologists argue this is how you form a sense of self.
Which means, if our old identities are meaningless, but we still want to feel a part of something real, we have to make new identites which do matter. The problem is…there aren’t really any categories you can put people into that aren’t completely or almost tautological. Even the category which corresponds to clear biological differences (man vs woman) is only marginally meaningful with reference to a few properties.
The strategy to deal with this has been to create a new abstract concept for gender/sexual identity: a “spectrum” that is a continuum (interval) of identities upon which each person can place themselves at whatever point they would like. Then each identity must be meaningful since each identity is entirely particular i.e. a single point on a line.
But…if your identity is unique to you, or so particular that I would probably never encounter another person who chooses that identity (as would be the statistical case with a true continuum) it’s basically meaningless for you to go around identifying as it. You’re just kind of calling yourself something, but the only way for someone to understand that identity is to understand a fuckload of particular details about you that still don’t imply anything else significant about you, at which point, fuck this label, just tell me about you.
This reality starting to cause rifts within identity communities that have done a lot of hard work establishing their own tautological nature. People are looking around and say, ‘Oh wait, I was in this group with you, but I don’t agree with you about a bunch of shit, and hey, I also don’t like you, and hey, this whole group was fucking pointless in the first place, wasn’t the whole point of grouping together to prove that?’
That’s all stuff that’s happening now; here’s some conjecture:
The endpoint, in my mind, to identity collapse is the realization that all categories of human (including political, racial, ethnic, national) are tautological unless we specifically design our society to make it otherwise (see: ghettos). But doing so is unjust, because there’s no actual reason to do so. Therefore: as we make our societies more just, as we bring our societies more in line with the fact that each person is just an individual with a collection of traits coming from their particular ancestry and experience, our identities are going to collapse and we’re going to be left saying: ‘Wait, what am I even?’
The proper answer to which is: just another fucking person.
And that is scary. So: prepared to get scared.